On 11 July 2020, I arrived from London Heathrow to Bangalore India on an Air India flight AI112. It was a repatriation flight that was a part of the Vande Bharat Mission, an evacuation exercise of ginormous size by the Indian government to bring back its citizens from all over the world. At the time of writing this post, an incredible seven hundred thousand Indians had returned into the country via air and water. More than half a million just by air. That’s nearly the size of bottom ten countries’ populations put together. If this Repatriation was a country in itself, it would’ve been 164th largest in the list.
Now this post isn’t about the details of the journey, instead it’s an highlight of the experience, and also partly an observation of how possibly a new way of air travel could look like in the post pandemic world.
Firstly I’ve to mention that the entire process starting from waiting for the announcement of the flight schedule to booking the flights online, being provided with relevant information prior to the day of travel and the after care once I arrived at the destination port, has been an extremely commendable effort by the Indian Government. It was definitely heart warming to have been a part of this exercise, both as a passenger and as a stranded traveller.
The logistical nightmare that the authorities have had to deal with putting together such an incredible feat has to be more than just appreciated. Almost all major countries around the world carried out repatriation in their own ways but their numbers were minuscule compared to this and India did what it could to help its nationals. Yet so many people just whine, whinge, complain and point fingers for not being done enough. Haters are going to hate, whiners are going to whine. But for once they never put themselves on the other side of the equation to understand what it involves to get such a huge act right. I’m an apolitical being and this post has nothing to do with the exisiting or previous Indian governments. All of these are politically oblivious observations and thoughts on paper.
Yes for the authorities there were going to be challenges, yes there were going to be petty issues and yes were to be some flaws on such an exercise but considering these are repatriation flights and not commercial ones, it was definitely a job well done & I reckon people should be more accepting with what is being done instead of pointing out what isn’t. This is where one of my fav quips rings a bell “You can make all people happy some of the time and some people happy all the time, but you can never make all of them happy all the time.” It’s the kind of world we live in where you are judged for whatever you do, be it good or bad.
Starting with the ticket prices, I know a ton of them made noise about how expensive the flights were and they drew comparisons with a regular commercial flight in the precovid era. It’s not even like comparing apples to oranges, it’s more like comparing apples to may be seafood or something. A repatriation flight has a lot more to deal with to take pricing into consideration, from negotiating with the governments, airports, IATA, suppliers etc to making sure their own ground crew, cabin staff, pilots, food & PPE provisions etc are all in the right capacities and that their logistics are in place. Not to forget the security and well being of all the operating staff too. And given the current situation where half the world’s airlines have grounded their fleet, the operating cost of keeping those fleet in good shape, when it’s ready to fly again, also has to be taken into account. But hey, as a person who complains, who cares about all of that. What matters to me is what I have to pay and I’ll make noise about it !!! Phew…I can only imagine what it must be like, to govern and run the subcontinent.
Anyway, from the time of booking the ticket to getting on board the aircraft, the process was spot on, IMO. A day before the flight there was a text message from the Indian High Commission, as a reminder and what was needed to bring along. At the airport, the check in process was flawless. Although the tickets clearly mentioned about the luggage requirements, as expected a ton of them always had a ton of questions and yes “some arguing” at the counters <facepalm>. All those who adhered to what was mentioned, made it thru without any fuss. Before boarding everyone’s temperatures were noted, along with the face masks and a health questionnaire being provided. Those in the middle row seats were given the body suit and once we all boarded every passenger had a PPE kit and a pre-packed food bag waiting on their seats.
Onboard however this must have been the most well behaved Indian passenger crowd ever. Don’t want to be stereotyping as such cuz I’ve not been on too many flights where the vast majority have been just Indians. I’ve probably taken only a couple dozen flights from Oceania to India (and vice versa), via one of the transit points either in the Middle East or the South East. And every single time for the last 17 years I’ve noticed a significant difference between the flights that originate in Oceania and the ones that originate to India from the transit ports. Hence the note about passenger behaviour.
There’s always some sort of melodrama either with the food or the constant bell ringing for help, opening of the overhead lockers a zillion times and worst of all, the rush to get out of the plane as soon as it lands. Every single time it has felt like everyone is on a rush to catch a connecting flight that has already departed. With that in mind, on this flight however, there was hardly any of that. With each person wanting to be as safe as possible, all of them were at their seats for almost the entirety of the journey. Everyone just consumed whatever was given to them in their food bags with hardly anyone ringing for assistance and everyone followed the protocols of no more than one person waiting outside the toilet doors.
The usual inflight announcements were all in place and a few extra ones pertaining to COVID-19 and it’s subsequent procedures on arrival were also clearly articulated on board. Once the flight landed and we were ready to the leave the aircraft, it was such a bliss to see the passengers not in a rush to get out, except for a few odd ones here and there. Everyone once again adhered to the announcements and left the aircraft based on their seating allocation.
At the arrival terminal in Bangalore, yet again there was plenty of useful information about what was being done and what was expected of the passengers. After thermal imaging, temp check and hand stamped, our baggages were sanitised before being let off the airport. Ah ah ! We didn’t get to leave the airport straight away, as we all had to follow the mandatory institutional quarantine at a hotel that suited our budget. The hotels were preorganised by the state government and we were made sure we were dropped off at the hotel reception by an allotted vehicle. At no stage were we let go without our details being taken.
Once at the hotel, the hotel staff followed all the social distancing guidelines too and clear instructions provided about what to expect. A few days later, a government appointed medical professional arrived to the hotels to collect our throat and nasal swabs for the COVID test and two days later we were given a clearance certificate to go home and self isolate ourselves for an additional one week, irrespective of showing negative results. Not sure what if the results were positive but I’m sure that process would’ve been as smooth as it could be.
Now all of this involves a multitude of organisations to work together cohesively to ensure that each passenger, from booking the ticket to going home for self quarantine and everything in between, is well informed of every thing along the way. Numerous state and central government departments, authorities, private organisations, suppliers, hospitality providers, medical professionals, volunteers etc all of these folks had to work together to make everyone’s journeys as good as it can be. For you as a passenger as simple as it may seem, there’s a lot more that goes behind the scenes. So instead of complaining of what you didn’t get, be appreciative of what you did receive indeed. Most of all and very importantly, you were able reach your home from a foreign land, doesn’t that mean a lot?
I’m very thankful and definitely grateful that I made it safely home. I was in London after a few months of travel across North, Central and South America, with starting my journey all the way from New Zealand. In between somewhere, I was stranded in Marrakech Morocco from where I had to be repatriated to Stansted UK, on a RyanAir flight. And that repatriation experience was nowhere close to being even 5% as good as the VBM repatriation. It felt like I was a sardine packed in a tin, on a fishing boat. No seat allocations, no boarding passes, no air bridges, no masks, no food, no instructions and the list goes on and on.
In comparison this experience of making it to Bangalore from Heathrow was something to be completely proud of and talk about. And hence, my huge thanks to all everyone who made it possible for me to be where I am today..With my Fam !!